When M&S first began publishing the NCL back in 1957-58 its raison-d’etre was to make quality paperback reprints of important books written about Canada or by Canadian authors. It was meant to give students and professors the means to learn about Canadian literature, to teach and participate in CanLit courses in post-secondary and secondary courses and to start a critical analysis of Canadian literature. But when Malcolm Ross left his editorship of the library in 1978, its course slowly changed direction. Numbering titles in the library was eventually dropped, books that sold little disappeared, and the main purpose of the library slid more toward book sales rather than historical merit.
Now that the NCL is firmly on this path, it raises a pertinent question. Why has the library not published more of the books it chose not to back during the Ross years? Now that the library is not concentrating on books of an historical importance why has it not published every great book produced about Canada and books written by great Canadian writers? One of the criticisms of the NCL was its list of titles. These complaints were usually from Canadian readers who didn’t understand the NCL’s purpose back pre-1978 and thought the library was meant to create a canon of Canadian literature. Now that sales are more of a motivating factor of publication, the restrictions to historical significance no longer applies and the NCL could actually become the series that shows off the greatest and most respected books in Canadian literature.
It has been over thirty years since the directional change occurred so you would figure the NCL would have reached this goal by now. When looking over the books added since Series Four started (the series when the numbering was dropped and the library moved more towards a selling perspective) it has added many titles that could be considered the best of what Canada has to offer. Books like Anne of Green Gables, Who Has Seen the Wind, Two Solitudes, Man Descending, Running in the Family, and Surfacing show that the NCL knows what canonical Canadian literature is. But still there are too many titles missing that could lead most Canadians to think that if they purchased every title from the latest publishing list of the NCL they would have every great book from Canadian literature, or at least most of them.
With that in mind, here are some titles that would need to be added in order for the NCL to come closer to becoming the library that represents a complete, or close to complete, canon of CanLit:
The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood
When speaking of Atwood’s greatest novel, there is always and argument. But what is never argued is that The Handmaid’s Tale is an equal if not greater book than Surfacing or The Edible Woman, both of which have made the library.
Lost in the Barrens by Farley Mowat
How is it that one of the greatest adventure stories for youth ever written in Canada has not entered the NCL? With Anne of Green Gables and the Emily books finding a place, I don’t see why Mowat can’t also. It is one of the most obvious holes in the NCL. There are also many other books by this distinguished author that could easily be added. What about Curse of the Viking Grave, Never Cry Wolf, or People of the Deer?
Lives of Girls and Women by Alice Munro
I’m not sure why Munro’s greatest book has not been included yet. It has been published for forty-three years now and is one of the greatest short story cycles ever written. No Love Lost is there, why not Lives of Girls and Women?
The Deptford Trilogy by Robertson Davies
If the trilogy would take up too many pages for one book then like the Emily books by L. M. Montgomery, the three novels could be put in the NCL as three individual books (that is, Fifth Business, The Manticore, and World of Wonders). Now that Penguin owns M&S (Penguin has published these books in the past) there seems no reason that the books couldn’t enter the NCL in the near future.
Generation X by Douglas Copeland
I wonder if the unconventional size of this book is one reason it has not been included in the NCL. It would be strange to read it in paperback form. It also may be too recent for inclusion as it was published in 1991. But saying that, we can at least agree that no Douglas Copeland books in the NCL is a big hole.
Also should be included:
- Kamouraska by Anne Hebert
- The Stone Diaries by Carol Shields
- Green Grass, Running Water by Thomas King
- The Studhorse Man by Robert Kroetsch
- Obasan by Joy Kagawa
- The Wars by Timothy Findley
- Kiss of the Fur Queen by Tomson Highway
Within the next twenty years these books should be added as well if they hold the esteem they have garnered since their publication:
- Away by Jane Urquhart
- De Niro’s Game by Rawi Hage
- Fall on Your Knees by Ann-Marie MacDonald
- Fugitive Pieces by Anne Michaels
- Half-Blood Blues by Esi Edugyan
- Life of Pi by Yann Martel
- Lives of the Saints by Nino Ricci
- The Book of Negroes by Lawrence Hill
- The Colony of Unrequited Dreams by Wayne Johnston
- Whale Music by Paul Quarrington
- What the Body Remembers by Shauna Singh Baldwin
- The Sisters Brothers by Patrick deWitt
- The Book of Secrets by M. G. Vassanji
- The Cure for Death by Lightning Gail Anderson-Dargatz
It would be interesting to know what books other readers of the NCL think are good examples of obvious gaps that the library has. Perhaps The Collected Works of Billy the Kid or In the Skin of a Lion should be included, or more of the Anne books (Anne of Avonlea or Anne of the Island), or perhaps the other Mowat books mentioned previously.
Perhaps some readers wish the NCL would return more to its original purpose, or at least expand on the earlier writers in our history. Books that might come to mind could be The Sky Pilot (1899) by Ralph Connor, The Woman Who Did (1895) by Grant Allen, or The Measure of the Rule (1907) by Robert Barr.